Gateway to the Classics: Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque
 
Undine by  Friedrich de la Motte Fouque

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How They Journeyed to Vienna

N OW the story halteth for a space. After the last adventure all was quiet and peaceful at the castle. More and more was the knight conscious of that heavenly goodness in his wife, which had been so nobly proved in her hasty pursuit and rescue of them from the Black Valley, where Kühleborn's power began again. And Undine felt that inner peace and security which never fail the heart that knows itself to be in the right way. Besides, in the newly-awakened love and esteem of her husband, many a gleam of hope and joy shone upon her. As for Bertalda, she seemed humble, grateful, modest, without claiming any merit for such virtues. It might chance that either Huldbrand or Undine sought now and again to explain to her why the fountain was covered, or the real meaning of the Black Valley adventure; but she always earnestly begged them to spare her. "For," said she, "the fountain makes me feel ashamed, and the Black Valley terrifies me." Naught more of either then did she learn. And, indeed, why should she? Peace and joy had visibly come to stay at Castle Ringstetten. Real security was theirs, or so they deemed—why should life produce aught but flowers and fruit?

In conditions like these winter had come and passed away, and spring with her green buds and blue sky visited the happy inmates of the castle. Spring was in tune with their hearts and their hearts with spring. What wonder then if her storks and swallows awoke in them also a wish to travel?

One day, as they were sauntering to one of the sources of the Danube, Huldbrand spoke of the majesty of the noble river, and how it flowed on, ever widening, through fertile lands; how the glory of Vienna rose on its banks, and new might and loveliness were revealed in every tract and reach of its course.

"It must be glorious to sail down the river to Vienna," exclaimed Bertalda; then falling back on her present mood of humbleness and reserve, she coloured deeply and was silent.

Undine was much touched thereby, and with an eager wish to please her friend, she said: "What hinders us from taking this voyage?" Bertalda was delighted, and forthwith both began to picture to themselves in the most glowing colours the delight of travel on the Danube. Huldbrand also gladly agreed; yet once he whispered in Undine's ear:

"But Kühleborn regains his power lower down the river!"

"Let him come," quoth Undine gaily, "I shall be there, and he tries none of his tricks before me!" Thus the last obstacle disappeared. When they had prepared themselves for the voyage, they set out with the best courage and the brightest hopes.

Howbeit, meseemeth for us mortal men there is little to marvel at, if things should turn out contrary to our hopes. The evil power which lurks to destroy us is wont to lull to sleep its chosen victim with sweet songs and golden delusions, while the saving messenger from heaven often knocks at our door with sharp and terrifying summons.

Now for the first few days of the voyage down the Danube, their cup of happiness seemed full. Everything grew more and more beautiful the farther they sailed down the proudly-flowing river. Nathless, in a country which smiled so sweetly and was so full of the promise of pure delight, lo, Kühleborn, with his ungovernable malice, began openly to show his powers of interference. It is true that he essayed naught but irritating tricks, for Undine would often rebuke the rising waves or the contrary winds, and then for an instant the power of the enemy was humbled. But the attacks began again and again. Undine's reproofs became necessary in such sort that the pleasure of the little party was completely destroyed. Moreover the boatmen were continually whispering and looking with a certain mistrust at their passengers; while even the servants began to have forebodings and watched their masters with suspicious glances.

Huldbrand would often say to himself: "Certès, like should only wed with like; this cometh of an union with a mermaid!" And making excuses for himself, as we are all wont to do, he would bethink him: "I knew not in truth that she was a sea-maiden; mine is the misfortune that all my life is let and hindered by the freaks of her mad kindred. It is no fault of mine!" Such thoughts seemed to hearten him; yet, on the other hand, his ill-humour grew and he felt something like animosity against Undine. She, poor thing, understood well enough what his angry looks signified. One evening, exhausted with these outbursts of ill-temper, and her constant efforts to frustrate Kühleborn's devices, she fell into a deep slumber, rocked soothingly by the gentle motion of the boat.

But hardly had she closed her eyes, when every one on board saw, wherever he turned, a horrible human head. It rose out of the waves, not like that of a person swimming, but perfectly perpendicular, as though kept upright on the watery surface, and floating along in the same course as the boat. Each man wanted to point out to his fellow the cause of his alarm, but each found on other faces the same horror—only that his neighbour's hands and eyes were turned in a different direction from that where the phantom, half laughing and half threatening, rose before him. But when they wished to make each other understand, and were all crying out, "Look there!"—"No—there!" all the horrible heads together and at the same moment appeared to their view, and the whole river swarmed with hideous apparitions. The universal shriek of fear awoke Undine, and, as she opened her eyes, the wild crowd of ugly faces vanished.

But as for Huldbrand, it irked him sore to see such jugglery. He had well nigh burst out in a storm of indignation; but Undine implored him in humble and soothing tones: "For God's sake," saith she, "bethink thee, my husband! We are on the water, do not be angry with me now!" So the knight held his peace and sat down with brooding thoughts. Undine whispered in his ear. "Were it not better, my love, that we gave up this foolish voyage, and returned in peace to Ringstetten?"

But Huldbrand murmured moodily: "So I must needs be a prisoner in my own castle, and only able to breathe so long as the fountain is closed! Would that thy mad kindred——" Hereupon Undine lovingly pressed her hand on his lips; and he paused, musing in silence over much that Undine had before told him.

Meantime, Bertalda had given herself up to many strange thoughts. Much of Undine's origin she knew, and yet not everything; as to Kühleborn, he above all had remained for her a terrible and insoluble puzzle. Indeed, she had never even heard his name. Pondering thus, she unclasped, half conscious of the act, a gold necklace which Huldbrand had recently bought for her from a travelling merchant; dreamily she drew it along the surface of the water, pleased with the bright glimmer it cast upon the evening-tinted stream. Of a sudden, a huge hand rose out of the Danube, caught hold of the necklace, and drew it down beneath the waters. Bertalda screamed aloud, and a mocking laugh echoed from the depths of the stream. And now the wrath of Huldbrand burst all bounds. Starting up, he cursed the river, cursed all those who dared to thrust themselves into his family life, and challenged them, whether water-spirits or sirens, to come and face his naked sword.

And Bertalda went on weeping for her lost and much loved toy, adding thereby fuel to the flame of the knight's anger; while Undine held her hand over the side of the vessel, dipping it into the water and softly murmuring to herself. Now and again she interrupted her strange and mysterious whisper by entreaties to her husband.

"Chide me not here, my best beloved!" she said, "Chide whom else thou wilt; but not me and here. Thou knowest why!" And, in truth, he kept back the words of anger that were trembling on his tongue. Presently in her wet hand she brought up from beneath the water a beautiful coral necklace, so beautiful and so brilliant that it dazzled the eyes of all who saw it. "Take this," she said, as she held it out to Bertalda. "I have had this fetched from below to make amends to thee. Do not grieve any more, my poor child!"

But the knight sprang between them. He tore the pretty trinket from Undine's hand, flung it into the river, and exclaimed in passionate rage: "So then," cried he, "thou still hast dealings with them? In the name of all the witches, abide with them, thou and thy presents, and leave us mortals in peace, sorceress!"

Poor Undine looked at him with fixed and tearful eyes, her hand still outstretched, as when she had offered her present so lovingly to Bertalda. Then she wept, ever more and more bitterly, like an innocent child who feels that it has been sorely misused. At length, wearied and outworn, she murmured: "Alas! sweet friend, I must needs bid thee farewell! They shall do thee no harm; only remain true, so that I may have the power to protect thee from them. But for myself, I must go—go hence in the springtide of my life. Oh, what hast thou done! What hast thou done! Alas! Alas!"

And so Undine vanished over the side of the vessel. Whether she plunged into the stream or was drawn into it they knew not; it might have been either or perhaps somewhat of both. But full soon she was lost to sight in the Danube; only a few little waves seemed to whisper and sob round the boat, as though they murmured: "Alas! alas! Be faithful!"


[Illustration]

Soon she was lost to sight in the Danube.

And Huldbrand lay on the deck, weeping bitterly, till a deep swoon cast a veil of merciful oblivion over his unhappiness.


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